Who Are You Calling Random?
From Tori Amos to the Muppets

Hands up if you’re tired of hearing me bash Tori Amos.

Believe me, I’m tired of doing it myself. Tori used to be one of the most important artists in the world to me, but after more than 10 years of bloated, mediocre records, that distinction has certainly faded. On some level, I want to like everything I hear, from any artist, but that’s more true of Tori’s work than just about anyone else. I keep buying it because I want to love it, and I keep walking away disappointed.

So it’s with guarded optimism that I’ll say the following: I really like the first two songs I’ve heard off of Tori’s upcoming album, Night of Hunters. The opener, “Shattering Sea,” rumbles like an earthquake, and the closer, “Carry,” is perhaps the loveliest Tori song I’ve heard since “Gold Dust.” Best of all, both of these songs – and the entire album, reportedly – return Amos to her piano-and-strings roots. Neither of these tunes pack the emotional punch of “Winter,” or “Cloud on My Tongue,” or even “Flying Dutchman,” but it’s so nice to hear her facing that direction again.

I can’t remember the last time I liked one of Tori’s first singles this much. In celebration, I decided I would revisit the second half of her career, and see if my low opinion of it still stands. I listened to everything from 1999’s To Venus and Back on, and without the first few masterpieces to compare all this more recent material to, I ended up enjoying some of it. In particular, American Doll Posse is as good as I remembered, loud and raucous and very strange, while some sections of Abnormally Attracted to Sin held me in their grasp.

The only one of these albums to inspire a complete reevaluation, however, was 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk. At the time, this was the last straw – I had suffered through the mediocre Venus and the covers disc Strange Little Girls, and I was ready for another hit-you-in-the-gut stunner. And Scarlet’s Walk, an 18-song concept piece, seemed poised to deliver that. The album itself was a mellow, low-key, slickly-produced affair that didn’t find Amos stretching that beautiful voice at any point. It all seemed so… controlled. And the songs, I argued, were simplistic things, lacking the complexity of my favorite Tori songs, like “Yes, Anastasia” and “Precious Things.”

But man, this time through, Scarlet’s Walk really hit me. Yeah, these are simple songs, but they’re melodic ones, and they burrow into your brain. How did I miss the shimmering beauty of “Taxi Ride”? The melancholy of the title track? The wonderful chorus of “Mrs. Jesus”? Last time I heard Scarlet’s Walk, I came away liking exactly three songs. This time, I flipped that equation – there are only three songs I would remove from this track list. And I can overlook those for the towering “I Can’t See New York,” which I now think of as the Last Great Tori Amos Song. (And “Gold Dust” ain’t too shabby, either.)

Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older, and glossy production like this doesn’t bother me as much anymore. Or maybe it’s that I had the bar set so high for Scarlet’s Walk that nothing could have cleared it. This album doesn’t do me in like her first three, but to dismiss it the way I had is a serious mistake. There’s a lot to love here, and taken as a whole, as Amos’ response to the horrors of September 11 (now nearly 10 years ago), it’s a remarkable piece of work.

So I was wrong, and I’m happy to admit it.

But The Beekeeper still sucks a lot. Trust me.

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So Night of Hunters comes out on September 20. But before we get there, we have a lot of new music to plow through. And the announcements keep on coming. Here are some things we didn’t know before:

On September 6, Hank Williams III will release three new albums, one of them a double. The two-fer is a country record called Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town, his second country record of the year. The other two are heavy speed and doom metal records, one called Attention Deficit Domination and the other Three-Bar Ranch Cattle Callin’. The latter has vocals by actual auctioneers, set to speed metal rhythms. Hank III has always been weird, but this volley of releases – the first on his new self-made label – promises to outdo everything before it.

September 13 will see several returns from exile. Primus will release Green Naugahyde, their first record in 12 years. Alice Cooper will drop the sequel to perhaps his best record, Welcome to My Nightmare. (The new one already has a point against it, since it’s called Welcome 2 My Nightmare. Ugh.) Dream Theater will release A Dramatic Turn of Events, their first record without drummer Mike Portnoy. The Bangles will give us their first disc in eight years with Sweetheart of the Sun. And Worship Music, the long-in-the-works reunion record from Anthrax, will also hit shelves.

Other news since last we spoke. I am over-the-moon excited for Everything Changes, the new effort from Julian Lennon, slated to hit UK stores on October 4. His last album, the forever-ago Photograph Smile, remains a favorite, and I have high hopes for this one, which he’s been working on for years. Ryan Adams will walk back into our lives with Ashes and Fire on October 11, alongside a new one from Rachael Yamagata, a remix record from Radiohead, and New Blood, a collection of orchestral reworkings of his own songs from Peter Gabriel. Pretty excited for that one, too.

Brian Wilson decided the best way to expand on his immortal legacy was to make an album of Disney tunes. So he did: Songs in the Key of Disney hits on October 18. Perhaps it’s just my weakness for all things Brian, but the first taste, “Heigh-Ho/Whistle While You Work,” makes me smile. Brian didn’t stick to the classics, though – his record includes versions of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” from The Lion King, and “Colors of the Wind,” from Pocahontas. I often wonder if he knows he’s Brian Wilson. The man can do what he wants, but… sheesh.

Also on October 25 is the new one from Coldplay, saddled with the nonsensical title Mylo Xyloto. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard, but this doesn’t sound like another great leap forward, like Viva La Vida was. Also returning on the 25th is Thomas Dolby, who hasn’t had a new record in nearly 20 years. The long-delayed project is called A Map of the Floating City, which is a very Thomas Dolby title.

And finally, here’s one for you old-school metalheads. For the first time ever, I believe, Metallica and Megadeth will release albums on the same day, November 1. Metallica’s is their bizarro-world collaboration with Lou Reed, called Lulu. And Megadeth will drop its 13th album, wittily titled Th1rt3en. Could they both be terrible? Time will tell.

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Speaking of time, I have just enough of it for one quick review. So I picked my favorite thing I’ve heard recently. It just so happens it’s a tribute album to the Muppets.

I’m not even going to pretend here: I love the Muppets. Always have. I have seen every Muppet movie multiple times. As a child, I would remain glued to the screen when The Muppet Show was on – I was a particularly big fan of the Pigs in Space sketch. Some days I identified with Kermit, the nice guy trying to make everyone happy. Some days (well, most days) I identified with Gonzo, the misfit looking for a place to belong.

I can’t say enough good things about Jim Henson. The Muppets were his expression of childlike joy, and they still resonate today. But they didn’t talk down to children, or fill them with false hope. The message of the Muppets is that sometimes life will be hard, and you’ll feel outcast and downtrodden. But with good friends and a song in your heart, you can make it through anything.

This is why I’m so jazzed about a new Muppet movie – a whole new generation of children will get to discover the Muppets, and watch the old show and movies. (The Great Muppet Caper is the best one, kids.) Similarly, the just-released The Green Album will hopefully point that younger generation in the direction of the wonderful original songs composed for the Muppets over the years. Most of the classics are here, in new versions performed by the likes of OK Go, Andrew Bird, My Morning Jacket and the Fray.

The best stuff here is at the beginning and the end. OK Go’s trippy version of the “Muppet Show Theme Song” is great, the Fray actually do a splendid job with the immortal “Mahna Mahna,” and Alkaline Trio knock the old Muppet Movie chestnut “Movin’ Right Along” out of the park. My favorite, of course, is “Rainbow Connection,” performed respectfully by Weezer with Paramore’s Hayley Williams. This song, the opening number of The Muppet Movie, never fails to move me. This version is lovely.

From there, the record dips somewhat – I’m not particularly interested in anything the Airborne Toxic Event does, and though I like Sondre Lerche’s take on the Electric Mayhem tune “Mr. Bass Man,” that was never a song that spoke to my soul. I had never heard “Our World,” the sweet tune My Morning Jacket takes on, and apparently that’s because it’s from the upcoming movie. And if you ever wanted a screaming metal version of “Night Life,” from The Great Muppet Caper, well, Brandon Saller and Billy Martin are here to give it to you.

It’s all fun, but for my money, give me the last three tracks. Andrew Bird faithfully sings the great “Bein’ Green,” adding his own whistles and violin playing, and it’s terrific. Matt Nathanson does a great job with “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along,” hangdog Rowlf’s showcase from The Muppet Movie. You’d never know this is a Muppet song – it’s like a Randy Newman piece. And the finale is Rachael Yamagata’s beautiful, haunting take on “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” the Muppet Movie song that sums up not only Gonzo’s character, but the Muppets in general: “There’s not a word yet for old friends who’ve just met, part heaven, part space, or have I found my place, you can just visit, but I’m going to stay…” It’s just an amazing song, and Yamagata sings it amazingly well.

Those unfamiliar with the Muppets may be surprised at how adult these songs are. The Muppet songs are timeless, and this tribute album, though flawed, certainly succeeds in shining a light on them for those who have yet to discover their magic. Long live the Muppets. And someday we’ll find that rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers and me.

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Next week, some fair-to-middling returns from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lenny Kravitz and Mike Doughty. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.